Despite all the odds and questions surrounding COVID and other issues, the NFL has made it to the postseason. We saw lengthy playoff droughts come to a close for teams like the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the AFC, one team to finish 10-6 did not even get the satisfaction of playing January football (Miami Dolphins).
Today, we will be focusing on the AFC side of the NFL playoff picture. Personally, I think this is the deeper of the two conferences entering the postseason. All three wild card teams are red hot or very close to it. You legitimately feel like any of these seven teams can win a playoff game. I do, at least. With that in mind, we are going to focus on all seven teams’ most important player. This will not include the players throwing the football in a pass heavy league. Recent stretches and career best or league leading seasons were heavily taken into account with these seven players.
Kansas City Chiefs- Travis Kelce
Travis Kelce has long been considered one of the top tight ends in the NFL. But this year, he took his game up yet another level. Kelce broke George Kittle‘s record for most receiving yards in a single season for a tight end. Kittle held the record for 1,377 yards in 2018. Kelce’s 1,416 receiving yards not only broke that record. However, it also seemed to be treated as rudimentary. He also set new career highs in other areas along with receiving yards. That includes receptions (105), yards per reception (13.5), touchdowns (11) and receptions resulting in a first down (79). Furthermore, Kelce had 38 receptions of 15 yards or more. That was second in the NFL to only the Atlanta Falcons’ Calvin Ridley (40 receptions). And he didn’t even play in the regular season finale.
From a Chiefs standpoint, Kelce is one of the more unguardable players in the league. He can line up as an inline tight end, or out at the X and in the slot. He helps out Patrick Mahomes tremendously by having a knack to find those soft spots in zones and fooling defenders. Out of a plethora of dynamic skill players for Kansas City, Travis Kelce will be the most vital for his team in the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills- Stefon Diggs
The Buffalo Bills rise was noticeable. Nonetheless, the trade for Stefon Diggs was exactly what this team needed. Players like Cole Beasley, John Brown and Isaiah McKenzie are certainly serviceable snap takers. But bringing in Diggs gave quarterback Josh Allen a bonafide number one receiver. He is one of the smoothest route runners in the NFL, leaving defenders twisted up like a pretzel. In addition, Diggs is as dangerous as any other skill player in the playoffs after the catch.
This season, Diggs was able to shatter his previous career best marks and create new ones. This includes receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535). Among NFL ranks for 2020, we saw him finish first in those categories. Diggs also garnered the most targets in the league (166). With how well Allen is playing at quarterback under offensive coordinator and head coaching candidate Brian Daboll, defenses cannot plan on stopping Stefon Diggs. You can only hope to slow him down, which is close to impossible right now.
Pittsburgh Steelers- TJ Watt
After discussing some of the top offensive playmakers in the AFC, let’s move to a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end/outside linebacker TJ Watt has been a steady example of success among NFL defenders. His pass rush ability as a speed rusher and with his counter moves almost make it look like he’s rushing on air. Offensive tackles are just praying that their quarterback is able to get the ball out quickly.
This season alone, Watt finished as the NFL leader in sacks (15.0), tackles for loss (23) and quarterback hits (41). And it is not just the fear of pass rushing that he brings to the table. Ball security is paramount. Watt has a certain knack for swiping or punching the ball out of players’ grasp. And as a runner, you may as well just run to the opposite side. There are a fair share of powerful running backs in the AFC playoff picture. Yet, Watt can take any of those rushers out of the picture singlehandedly.
Tennessee Titans- Derrick Henry
There is no other running back who could be considered as the NFL’s best running back. Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook are certainly two of the more dependable runners. Though with Derrick Henry, this guy places legit fear in the heart of NFL defenders. It is one thing to have his size at 6’3” and 247 pounds. But it is another thing to possess the speed he has at that size. Just look at his 94 yard touchdown run against the Houston Texans from earlier this season.
Henry had already put up gaudy numbers in his first four seasons. Somehow, he outdid himself in 2020. New career highs resulted in categories like carries (378), rushing touchdowns (17) and rushing yards per game (126.7). The most impressive new benchmark was his rushing yards, however. Henry’s season total of 2,027 rushing yards allowed him to become the eighth player all time to achieve a 2,000 yard rushing season. He joins historic company like Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Chris Johnson and OJ Simpson.
Baltimore Ravens- JK Dobbins
Admittedly, this was the most difficult team to look for non-quarterback wise. Of course, guys like Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown are noteworthy receiving threats who are favorite targets of Lamar Jackson. But, neither one moved the needle for me this year, or saw a large statistical drop off. There was also heavy consideration for cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
As a result, I decided to talk about rookie running back JK Dobbins. He is starting to receive a larger role in the offense. Over his final six games of the season, Dobbins averaged 12.8 carries, 82.5 rushing yards and 1.16 rushing touchdowns per game. While much of the focus will fall onto Jackson for defenses looking to stop the run, they must stay honest with Dobbins. He, like the Ravens, is playing his best at the right time. Dobbins vision, smooth feet and sneaky short area quickness are the traits that made him so coveted by Baltimore in a run heavy offense.
Cleveland Browns- Myles Garrett
Not choosing Nick Chubb here was difficult. It was the steady production that Myles Garrett has provided that really stood out, though. Even with that ugly incident from last season that led to a suspension, Garrett has been reliable and consistent. The Cleveland defensive line has done a fine job collectively of getting to the quarterback. Unfortunately, one aspect of that pass rush will now be missed in the form of Olivier Vernon. The veteran ruptured his Achilles in last Sunday’s win over the Steelers.
This makes Garrett’s presence that much more vital. With his ability to bend around the edge and push opposing blockers to the side with heavy hands, there is evidence that Garrett can takeover a game quickly. His 12.0 sacks in 2020 were the fifth highest across the league. Garrett has averaged nearly a sack in every game he has played. To boot, his run defense has also improved over the course of this season.
Indianapolis Colts- DeForest Buckner
The Indianapolis Colts wasted no time in upgrading their defensive line this past offseason. They traded their first round pick in 2020 to the San Francisco 49ers in return for DeForest Buckner. After the trade, Buckner signed a massive four year contract extension for $84 million. It was the second highest contract for a defensive tackle at the time, behind only Aaron Donald.
It’s safe to say the trade paid off. In 15 games, Buckner accumulated 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three pass deflections. His 26 quarterback hits set a new career high. At times he appears unblockable. Elsewhere, there are reps where Buckner enters the backfield quicker than any other defensive tackle. Not all teams have the ability to provide consistent pressure from the defensive tackle spot. And Buckner does not always need sacks to do it. His presence forces multiple blockers to keep their attention on him. This allows chances for other Colts defenders for shots at the quarterback. Running backs are also forced to bounce outside into the waiting arms of the defenders who are in pursuit. Buckner gives many quarterbacks happy feet, which creates errant throws.
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– Braden Holecek is the Kansas City Chiefs managing editor for Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on Follow @ebearcat9//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Follow @FPC_Chiefs//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js and Facebook.